Hindu View on Homosexuality
In Hinduism, carnal pleasure, called Kama in Sanskrit, is one of the four major duties assigned for human beings. Other three are dharma (righteous actions), artha (wealth) and mokshya (liberation). Hindu theologies do not accept sex outside the context of marriage and adultery is abhorred. Hinduism emphasize on life of celibacy, and gives techniques to abstain from sex until marriage. However, Hinduism has liberal attitude towards sex. Hindu Canon consist numerous texts on how to enjoy sensual pleasure to fullest.
Many Hindus consider homosexuality a taboo because the scriptures do not specifically mention homosexuality, and the purpose of sex, within the concept of marriage, is for sustaining the genealogy and human race, and enjoying the bliss of copulation.
The main thesis of Hinduism is reincarnation of soul. Soul is an invisible and eternal entity, which lives in human beings, as well as animals, and does not die when human beings die. As long as the soul (Atma in Sanskrit) does not unite with the Supreme Soul (God, Parmatma in Sanskrit) and becomes liberated, it enters into another body and continues to exist. Hindu philosophy says human soul does not have a gender, and when it reincarnates, it may take a birth in a man, a woman, or an animal.
The Concept of Third Gender in Hinduism
Even though there is no specific mention of homosexuality, Hinduism recognizes people showing the signs of both sexes. The terminology used for such person is tritiya prakriti, literally third nature. The third gender is the common term for human being that is between a man and woman.
India, the country with highest Hindu population in the world, does not officially recognize the third gender, except in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu. In India, the followers of Radha-Krishna worshiping cult believe that everyone on earth is a woman and only Lord Krishna is a man. Based on their belief, the male devotes dress as a woman.
Nepal, the country with world’s second largest Hindu population, officially recognizes the third gender. Nepali definition of third gender includes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
In India and Nepal, transgender people, commonly called Hijra, identify themselves as a third gender. In some Hijras community, the members go through ritual castration to look more like woman. The Hindus in India and Nepal do not consider a man who copulates with a Hijra a gay.
Ardhanarishwar: The Third Gender Deity
Hindu religion also has a deity in third gender form. He/she is called Ardhanarishwar, literally half-male and half-female God. Ardhanarishwar, the hermaphrodite deity in Hinduism, has left part as a female and right part as a male. Ardhanarishwor is an androgynous form of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati. Ardhanarishwar is believed to be neither Shiva nor Parvati, but the God and Goddess in unison.
Yellamma: The Deity of the Fallen
Yellamma, the deity of the fallen, is a local deity in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu, worshiped by the third genders. Yellamma is believed be the transgender form of Arjuna, one of the heroes in the Hindu Epic Mahabharata. In his third gender form, Arjuna is called Brihanla, and Yellamma is a local name for Brihanla. The Temple of Yellamma is dedicated to third gender form of Arjuna. As Brihanla, Arjuna spent his time teaching dance and music, therefore most of the third genders in India earn their living by dancing and singing.
Homosexual Iconography in Hinduism
There is an overwhelming presence of homosexual iconography in Hinduism. Hindu art in sculptures, carvings, and paintings represent copulation between the same sexes. Since Hindu religion and philosophy treats sexuality as pleasure and fertility, erotic carvings are highly revered. Erotic sculptures, carvings and paintings are significant aspect of Hindu Temples. In Kama Sutra, the Hindu book on sexuality, homosexuality is considered permissible in some communities and forbidden in others.
The Third Gender in Hinduism Scriptures
The Hindu scriptures give enough references of third gender i.e. alternate sexual identity. In the Hindu Epic Mahabharata, which is designated as the gist of Hindu religion and philosophy, there are there are two major third-gender characters: Shikhandi and Brihanla.
Shikhandi, who was born as a transgender in a royal family of Panchal during the Mahabharata era, is mentioned both as a man and as a woman. In his/her previous life form, Shikhandi was a princess named Amba, who wanted to revenge Bhisma because he destroyed her marriage. Amba worshiped Lord Shiva and asked him to bless her with the power to kill Bhisma. Lord Shiva said, when she would be born as Shikhandi in another life form, she will be able to kill Bhisma. With the help of Shikhandi, Arjuna, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata, was able to kill Bhisma.
Arjuna, too, had to live as a transgender for a year because a nymph called Urvasi cursed him. According to the Hindu mythology, Arjuna went to live with his father Indra, the Lord of Heaven, for some time. In the Heaven, Urvasi fell for Arjuna and asked him to satisfy her desire. Arjuna flatly denied saying Urvasi is like a mother figure for him because eons ago she had been a consort of his ancestor. Urvasi, in a bout of anger, cursed Arjuna that his potency will collapse. When Indra heard about the curse, he said Arjuna will live only one year as transgender, which will be very helpful to him. When Arjuna, along with his four brothers and wife, was hiding from his arch enemy Duryodhana, he changed into a transgender form. Arjuna, as a transgender, was called Brihanla. According to the Mahabharata, Arjuna did not cross dress as a woman but was biologically changed into transgender
Hindu Scriptures Purna also mentions about alternate genders. According to Mastya Purana, Ill, also called Illa, was a son of King Manu. However, he changed into a woman because of a curse from Goddess Parvati. Every month his gender changed, as a man he was called Ill and as a woman she was called Illa.
Homosexuality in Hinduism
According to Mastya Purana and Vayu Purana, Lord Vishnu took a form of Enchantress Mohini to trick the demons. However, when Lord Shiva saw Vishnu as Mohini, he was instantly in love. The union between the Gods manifested a child. This child of Vishnu and Shiva is worshiped as Lord Ayyappa. The Temple of Sabarimala in the Indian State of Kerala is dedicated to the son of Vishnu and Shiva popularly called Hari-Hara-Putra.
Hari is one of the names of Vishnu and Hara is one of the names of Shiva. In Hindu worshiping, when Vishnu and Shiva are worshiped together, they are called Hari-Hara. The prayers dedicated to Hari-Hara describe Hari (Vishnu) and Hara (Shiva) as a male couple. Some of the depictions of Hari-Hara show the deity in blended form and in some portrayals they are standing close.
The Hindu Epic Ramayana also has a story about homosexuality. Once there was a king named Dilip, he had two wives, but he died without leaving an heir. One day Lord Shiva appeared in the dream of King’s widows and said they will have a child if they made love together. The queens made love and one day one of the queens gave birth to a child. The child grew to become a great King Bhagiratha, who brought River Ganges from the heaven to the earth.
The Vedas are the most authoritative Hindu Scriptures. In the Vedas, there are twin Gods called Ashwini and Kumar. Hindu theologies always refer Ashwini-Kumar as a couple. Ashwini and Kumar are never mentioned separately, they are seen together even when go to bed a woman.
Homosexuality in Contemporary Hindu Societies
Since there is no specific reference in Hindu Canon criminalizing or decriminalizing homosexuality, proponents and opponents of homosexuality put forward their arguments based on their own interpretation of theologies.
When Fire, a film based on lesbian relation, was released in India in 1996, it caused nationwide protest. The theaters had to stop screening of the film because the demonstrations went violent. However, the BJP, the Hindu Party, which was in the government at the time, rejected a plea to ban the movie.
© 2013 Vinaya Ghimire
More by this Author
A comprehensive guide to Sophocles and his play Oedipus the King, and Sigmund Freud’s analysis of the myths of Oedipus and Oedipus complex
According to Hinduism, death is not the end of the existence, rather a new beginning. Human soul continues to survive even after the body dies.
If you are visiting Nepal, or living and working in Nepal, you can do hundreds of things. Here are the top 30 things to do when you are in Nepal.